Natasha Trethewey and Our Shared History

Readers Unbound is privileged to welcome Pearl McHaney as today’s guest blogger. 

Many readers shy away from poetry, afraid of not understanding, expecting not to been entertained.  American poet and pediatrician William Carlos Williams wrote a long love poem titled “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”   Near its end, I find my mantra for the significance of poetry:

                                      It is difficult

to get the news from poems

                   yet men die miserably every day

                                      for lack

of what is found there. 

And what we find in the poetry of Natasha Trethewey, United States Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014,  is of utmost importance. Drawing from her personal life in concert with public records that have been erased, ignored, and forgotten, Trethewey shows us our shared history.

Natasha Trethewey (knox.edu)

Natasha Trethewey (knox.edu)

Read, for example, a few lines from the poem “Miscegenation” about the marriage of her parents, a black woman from Gulfport, Mississippi, and a white man from Nova Scotia, Canada, found in her Pulitzer Prize book Native Guard (2006)

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;

they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

 

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong—mis in Mississippi.

Astonishing, but completely believable, is that many Southern states kept their anti-miscegenation laws in their constitutions despite the June 12, 1967, Supreme Court’s Loving v Virginia decision.

The Second Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards (Corps d’Afrique) was the first group of black troops to fight in the Civil War in Mississippi at Ship Island in April 1863. (Rebekah Walters, pinterest)

The Second Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards (Corps d’Afrique) was the first group of black troops to fight in the Civil War in Mississippi at Ship Island in April 1863. (Rebekah Walters, pinterest)

Elsewhere in Native Guard we read of the Louisiana Native Guards, a Union regiment comprised of free and freed blacks.  In the sonnet sequence entitled “Native Guard,” the final line of one sonnet is refigured to be the first line of the next. “April 1863” concludes with “their names shall deck the page of history,” and the next poem “June 1863” begins “Some names shall deck the page of history.” “their names” becomes  “Some names,” for we soon read that General Banks (a white man), in referring to his soldiers killed in the Port Hudson battle, “was heard to say I have/no dead there, and left them, unclaimed.” The poem of  ten connected sonnets begins and ends with the imperative, “Truth be told.” Truth-telling about the history that we all share is Trethewey’s vocation; her medium is poetry.

A subset of our shared American history is private and public violence and prejudice.  Melding the grief and emptiness that followed the murder of her mother with the flagrantly endemic inequities of the segregationist South, Trethewey fills Native Guard with visual scenes of cross burnings, beaten bodies, white stories memorialized, and black stories unmarked with monuments.  In “Southern Gothic,” Trethewey writes that in 1970,

                                                          I have come home

from the schoolyard with the words that shadow us

in this small Southern town—peckerwood and nigger

lover, half-breed and zebra—words that take shape

outside us.

Poems in Trethewey’s first book, Domestic Work (2000), tell the vanishing stories of her grandmother and relatives in Gulfport, Mississippi. Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), her second book, narrates the history of the women in Storyville, the legalized prostitution district of New Orleans, Ophelia tells her story in letters and diary entries.  Escaping her Mississippi home, she is able to find work only in Countess P’s brothel where E. J. Bellocq arrives, not for pleasure, but to take photographs.  Ophelia learns to pose, then assists, and then moves outside of the camera’s eye to gaze through the lens herself.  This enables her to leave Storyville.  Her “Postcard, en route westward” in the poem “March 1912” declares,

                  Now,

 

I feel what trees must—

budding, green sheaths splitting—skin

that no longer fits. 

Following Native Guard, Trethewey, realizing that her home had been erased and forgotten, wrote Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010). Primarily in prose, this book stories both public and personal economic, class, and race devastations wrought by Hurricane Katrina, including the incarceration of her step-brother whose desperation had led him to be a middleman in drug deals. In “Congregation,” a sequence of six poems about returning to her family’s church in Gulfport in 2009, “6. Prodigal” begins

Once, I was a daughter of this place:

daughter of Gwen, granddaughter

of Leretta, great of Eugenia McGee.

Trethewey and her mother Gwen (southernspaces.org_

Natasha Trethewey and her mother Gwen (southernspaces.org)

In 2012, Trethewey was named the nineteenth Poet Laureate of the United States and published Thrall. Here, reading the poems, we see the eighteenth-century Mexican casta paintings depicting mixed-race parents and their children, labeled according to their raced blood as in “Taxonomy: 3. De Español y Mestiza Produce Castiza.” We see Trethewey and her poet father, touring Monticello, debating Jefferson’s children in “Enlightenment.” As we read, we see how Trethewey finds herself, daughter of white father and black mother, in history:

                                             When I think of this now,

                I see how the past holds us captive,

its beautiful ruin etched on the mind’s eye:

 

my young father, a rough outline of the old man

              he’s become, needing to show me

the better measure of his heart, an equation

 

writ large at Monticello.

James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress from 1987-2015, said Trethewey’s poems in Thrall “dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century agothrall—to explore the human struggles that we all face.”

Perhaps many writers begin, as does Trethewey, with definition. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the first definition of “native” is “one born in bondage, a born thrall,” and the first meaning of “thrall” is “one who is in bondage to a master, a slave.” Trethewey allows herself to be a slave to her history, and in so doing, she reveals us to ourselves as she tells her personal story, insisting that our history is a shared history.

If you are so inclined to take the risk of reading poetry, a risk that may save your life, I recommend beginning with poems by Natasha Trethewey, many of which can be heard or read on the internet, for she is a generous citizen helping us to understand the current chaos by unearthing past histories so pertinent to who we are.

Pearl McHaney in her home office. Photo: Deb Miller

Pearl McHaney in her home office. Photo: Deb Miller

You met today’s guest blogger Pearl McHaney  and her husband Tom in June of 2015, in an interview by Deb Miller. To access this feature, scroll down the Home Page or else go to the Interview category in the Archives.

Pearl’s academic credentials include Kenneth M. England Professor of Southern Literature, Department of English, Georgia State University; Director, Center for Collaborative and International Arts; Director, GSU-University of Versailles Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines International Exchange; and Editor, Eudora Welty Review.

Pearl welcomes your responses to these questions. (Please scroll down to the comment box.) 

 What risks are you willing to take to uncover our shared history? 

What step, no matter how small, are you willing to make toward understanding how people are alike rather than different?

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2 thoughts on “Natasha Trethewey and Our Shared History

  1. Such a great post. Makes me want to pull out my copy of Native Guard to read again, knowing that second and third readings always resonate more clearly, more deeply. Re the concept of shared history, perhaps the risk of uncovering it, for many of us, comes in acknowledging the truth of how much our white privilege has kept us divided by our using it without thought, and by our ignoring what it means for those who dont have it.

  2. I find your second question interesting in that I tend to think everyone is basically alike until I come up on some statement or conversation that disabuses me of my naive assumption. Probably these same people find my beliefs just as odd, so, ironically, in our dissimilarities we are really alike.

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